If you aren't hiring a car then you'll need to take a bus to get anywhere on the island. The three main companies operating routes are SAM (east of Funchal) and airport shuttle, Rodoeste (www.rodoeste.com.pt; west of Funchal) and Horários do Funchal (Funchal city buses plus some mountain services). All have online timetables and run a reliable service. There are considerably fewer buses at weekends. The vast majority of services originate and terminate in Funchal, but there are some obscure, mid-afternoon buses between other towns.
Car & Motorcycle
Many visitors hire a car while on Madeira. Having your own set of wheels makes things a lot easier and you will see more. The Via Rápida motorway links Machico with Ribeira Brava via the airport and Funchal, and has cut journey times immensely.
Away from the motorway, roads are steep, narrow and twisting so you'll need to be confident behind the wheel. An odd phenomenon on the island are the natural 'car washes', waterfalls that sluice down onto roads after rain. Debris on the road after rock falls and intense wind/rain are other things to watch out for. Elderly tourists in hire cars pose a risk all of their own.
There are several hire companies operating in Madeira, including Auto Jardim (www.carhiremadeira.net) and Guerin (www.guerin.pt). Rodavante is a local company with branches at the airport and in the Hotel Zone.
Madeira has several useful cable cars, the most frequented being the Zona Velha to Monte and Monte to Botanical Gardens services.
Madeira's Tricky Transport
As you ease your hire car through one of Madeira’s modern tunnels, spare a thought for those who came before you. Until the 20th century most of the island didn’t have roads. The only way to get around was on foot, or by sleds pulled by oxen. Monte’s toboggans are the only remnant of this mode of transport. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Funchal’s wealthy were carried around in sedan chairs.
Metalled roads were laid as more cars appeared in Funchal, but what roads they are! The ability to perform a hill start is essential in these parts, as Funchal’s heroic bus drivers demonstrate without a flinch of rollback.
Roads may have invaded most of the island, but there are still places accessible only by cable car. The best known teleféricos run between the Zona Velha, Monte and the botanical gardens, but there are several others around the coast. They often give access to farmland or beaches.
Until 1964 the only way to reach Madeira was by ship or seaplane. Santa Catarina Airport was built that year, but with a very short runway and mountains on three sides, it quickly gained a reputation as one of the world’s trickiest landing strips. In 2002 the runway was lengthened from 1600m to 2780m by building out on stilts, thus creating one of the most remarkable airports in the world.
Of equal economic importance is the Via Rápida, the motorway linking Machico with Ribeira Brava. Since its construction a decade ago, this bucking, weaving freeway has cut down journey times immensely and is set to be extended to Calheta in coming years.